What The Wild Things Are

Understandings of Self, Awareness, and Mental Health in an Ever-Changing World

Warning: Being Bad Can Feel So Good

Research helps explain why people repeatedly break their own moral code.

Recently, researchers Nicole Ruedy, Francesca Gino, Celia Moore, and Maurice Schweitzer, at the University of Washington, the London Business School, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania published an article titled The Cheater’s High: The Unexpected Affective Benefits of Unethical Behavior in the The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Conventional theories of moral behavior and decision making assume that unethical behavior triggers negative emotions, and indeed, when participants in the study were interviewed before the study, they themselves reported an expectation that if they were to act unethically, they would feel guilty about it. These theories help support the idea that we are internally motivated to do the right thing, because it makes us feel bad not to.

But when put to the test, so to speak, the people who cheated actually experienced an immediate boost in emotion, which the researchers termed a “cheaters high.” The researchers went on to say that once people have this experience, it may be difficult to resist future unethical behavior, especially when someone can “derive both material and psychological rewards” from the behavior.

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Those of us working in the field of “process addictions” or compulsive behaviors (such as compulsive stealing or sexual behavior, gambling, compulsive eating, etc) are certainly not surprised by these results—it validates the behavior we see all of the time. Indeed, many of the people we see are they themselves flummoxed by their own behavior—they don’t understand why they continue to repeat a behavior they don’t feel good about and that goes against their morals, beliefs, and even self-image, and wreaks havoc in their lives.

The short answer, which these researchers have validated, is that they do it because in the moment it feels good. It gives the person a boost and if that person is feeling depressed, anxious, having difficulty coping, can’t assert what they need and want in a healthy way, etc. this little boost is a way to escape all of that, for a moment. And the escape works, which is why when all of the negative feelings return (which they always do, in addition to the feelings of shame due to the behavior), eventually the desire to do it again comes back, and thus the compulsion is born.

This important study helps to explain how and why motivation, behavior, and feelings don’t always align with morals and values. It also helps to make a case for treatment for people who compulsively repeat these behaviors; they need help with a transformation that will give them a deeper, longer-lasting experience of happiness, so they can give up the “boost” of the “cheater’s high.”


Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco.

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